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Winston Churchill in the New Statesman archive

A pre-war interview, “Should we hang Mr Churchill?” and how a wartime cabinet colleague fell under the Prime Minister's spell.

22 May 1926: Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?

By Clifford Sharp

In 1926, when Churchill was chancellor, British miners went on strike to demand improved working conditions. Churchill’s response – sending in the army – was tempered by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who insisted that the soldiers remain unarmed and who later called for reconciliation and peace. An extract from a commentary by the then NS editor.

By the spirit and manner in which Mr Baldwin ended the great strike he almost atoned for the way in which he precipitated it. For there is no longer any doubt that it was precipitated by the action of the Government, and, what is more, quite deliberately precipitated. It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge now that the strike need not have occurred . . .

What actually happened, it seems, was this. The Prime Minister, Lord Birkenhead and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland were fighting desperately for peace, whilst a section of the Cabinet, led by Mr Winston Churchill, Mr Neville Chamberlain and Mr Bridgeman, were itching for a fight. The peace party succeeded in arranging terms based on the Royal Commission’s Report, upon which the strike would be called off and the miners left, if they would not agree, to fight alone. With these terms they returned in triumph to the Cabinet room only to find Messrs Churchill and Chamberlain in charge and a clear majority in favour of war at all costs. When the Prime Minister proposed nevertheless to go forward with the negotiations and avert the strike, he was faced with the immediate resignation of seven of his colleagues—Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Bridgeman, Amery, “Jix”, Cunliffe-Lister, and one other of whose identity we are not sure. So he gave way. He ought not to have given way, of course, but excuses may perhaps be found for an utterly exhausted man who, having fought the Trade Unions for days and nights, found himself called upon at the last moment to fight his own colleagues.

Mr Churchill was the villain of the piece. He is reported to have remarked that he thought “a little blood-letting” would be all to the good. Whether he actually used this phrase or not there is no doubt about his tireless efforts to seize the providential opportunity for a fight.

So much for the way the strike began. When it ended Mr Baldwin had regained control of his Cabinet and had acquired so enormous a personal popularity in the country that he could afford to let all his colleagues resign if they wanted to. He took charge of affairs without consulting anybody, and without any Cabinet authorisation—which would certainly not have been forthcoming from the fight-to-a-finish section—he insisted upon peace. Thereby he atoned for his previous surrender. “Victimisation” was being attempted in almost every industry. Men were being asked to return to work as new hands, at much lower wages, under humiliating conditions. The Prime Minister stopped all that within twenty-four hours, by his insistence upon the necessity of forgetting the past and looking only to the future. Some of his colleagues and many of his supporters railed at him for his “weakness”; but this time he stood firm—and gave us peace. His atonement, we think, should be accepted. He blundered on that Sunday night in agreeing to war, but ever since then he has fought for peace, and fought with an extraordinary measure of success.

We do not know whether there is anybody left who still honestly believes that the strike was a “revolutionary” attempt to subvert the British Constitution. Its real nature, at any rate, was shown clearly enough by the actual course of events. It was a strike “in furtherance of a trade dispute”, and nothing more; and in so far as it secured for the miners—if they would but have seized the chance—a better hearing than they would otherwise have had, it may not unreasonably be claimed to have been a successful strike, despite the inevitable, and in our view timely, “surrender”. Not only was it not a strike against the Constitution, it was not even a strike against the Government. If it had the appearance of a strike against the Government, that was only because the Government had intervened—and rightly, though very ineffectively, intervened—in the struggle between the miners and the mineowners. If it had not intervened the strike would have taken place just the same; but then the truth would have been clear to everybody—namely, that it was a strike against the inefficiency and grasping obstinacy of the mineowners—nothing more and nothing less. The Constitution was never threatened either by word or by deed.

The general result of the strike is not unsatisfactory. It has shown that an industrial upheaval can take place, in this country at any rate, without the loss of a single life. But what is far more important, it has shown that the weapon of the General Strike is practically worthless in the hands of those who are not prepared to go to all lengths of revolutionary violence. It is a weapon which revolutionaries (being a tiny minority) could never wield; yet unless it is they who wield it, it is blunt and ineffective.

And so from henceforth we may hope that it will be discarded by the Trade Union movement. It has been tested and broken, and we all know where we are far more clearly than we did a month ago. The Trade Unions of Britain stood by their comrades in the mines, and perhaps by their wonderful solidarity they achieved something for them; but certainly the majority of them will never again wish to resort to so desperate a measure.

We have bought experience at a pretty high price, but we have got it; and no section of the community, we suppose, is more satisfied with the bargain than the “constitutional” leaders of the Labour movement. The irrepressible left-wingers are silenced; their dreams are dissolved; they must set about the Sisyphean task of converting the Trade Unions of Great Britain to revolutionary ideas, or admit failure.

For having so notably helped to teach us all this, ought we to thank Mr Churchill or ought we to hang him on a lamp-post for the incorrigible “blood-letter” that he is? We are really not quite sure what is the proper answer to that question; but probably—to be on the safe side—it would be best that he should be hanged. 

Photo: Captain Horton/IWM via Getty Images
 

7 January 1939: “The British people would rather go down fighting”

By Kingsley Martin

The Second World War was still eight months away when Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman from 1931 to 1960, interviewed Winston Churchill, yet again on the Conservative back benches, about democracy and fascism, the necessity of rearmament and the British attitude to war.

A famous journalist once told me of an alarming interview that he had with Mr Churchill some years before the last war. Mr Churchill happened to be in full Privy Councillor’s uniform and emphasised his points with finely executed passes and slashes of his sword. Mr Churchill himself declares that this is a fairy tale; and certainly, when I went to see him the other day, he was wielding nothing more ferocious than the builder’s trowel with which he was completing an arch in the house that he has built with his own hands this summer. He was not, however, too much absorbed to discuss very fully the problem of Democracy and Efficiency.

Kingsley Martin The country has learnt to associate you with the view that we must all get together as quickly as possible to rearm in defence of democracy. In view of the strength and character of the totalitarian states, is it possible to combine the reality of democratic freedom with efficient military organisation?

Mr Winston Churchill The essential aspects of democracy are the freedom of the individual, within the framework of laws passed by Parliament, to order his life as he pleases, and the uniform enforcement of tribunals independent of the executive. The laws are based on Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home. As long as these rights are defended, the foundations of freedom are secure.

KM One point people are especially afraid of is that free criticism in Parliament and in the press may be sacrificed. The totalitarian states, it is said, are regimented, organised and unhampered, as the Prime Minister suggested the other day, by critics of the Government “who foul their own nest”.

WC Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.

KM Do you attribute the slowness in preparation of which you complain to any inherent defect in democratic institutions?

WC I am convinced that with adequate leadership, democracy can be a more efficient form of government than Fascism. In this country at any rate the people can readily be convinced that it is necessary to make sacrifices, and they will willingly undertake them if the situation is put clearly and fairly before them . . . It may be that greater efficiency in secret military preparations can be achieved in a country with autocratic institutions than by the democratic system. But this advantage is not necessarily great, and it is far outweighed by the strength of a democratic country in a long war. In an autocracy, when the pinch comes, the blame is thrown upon the leader and the system breaks up. In a democratic country the people feel that they are respon­sible, and if they believe in their cause will hold out much longer than the population of Dictator States . . .

KM May I go back now to the question of pre-war preparation? We should all agree on the necessity for many restrictions in war-time, but what about conscription and the compulsion of labour and capital in time of peace? Captain Liddell Hart has remarked that to have conscription to combat Fascism is like cutting our throats to avoid a disease.

WC I see no reason why any essential part of our liberties should be lost by preparations for defence. I do not think we need a great conscript army on the continental model, but we should have besides our regular professional army a considerably larger body of Territorials available for home defence or foreign service in an emergency. In case of war a great army could be built up around such a skeleton. I would not hesitate to fill up the gap by ballot among all the young men of the country of the appropriate age, allowing no substitute whatsoever.

KM How much coercion of industry is implied in a Ministry of Supply with special powers? Will it involve state control of raw materials, and compete with the methods the Nazis have so successfully employed in South-East Europe and South America?

WC As you know, I have long pressed for a Ministry of Supply. In my view this should have powers, if necessary, to compel industry to give priority as required to Government contracts for rearmament purposes, and to devote or turn over any necessary portion of its plant to such work.

KM May I pass on to another related subject – ARP [Air Raid Precautions]? People say that the problem of defending London and other big cities in itself involves regimen­tation on an enormous scale. That you have to set up an army of petty officers with undefined powers.

WC I think a great mistake has been made in spreading our ARP efforts over the whole country, instead of concentrating on what I should call the target areas. I do not believe any enemy will waste his bombs and effort on killing ordinary citizens just out of spite, when he could obtain a much greater military result by bombing docks, factories, Government offices and the like. I am certain that in the villages the risk will be infinitesimal. Our main effort should be to protect workers in the central parts of London, in the ports, and in the manufacturing districts which will be subject to attack. I should be inclined to consider the building of great underground roads, leading out of London and branching off to various points in the countryside, which would not only serve to evacuate the Capital in time of danger, but could be used as dormitories and refuges for those who were compelled to remain behind. That some steps should be taken to prepare the population for the ordeal of bombing which would probably overtake it on the outbreak of war, seems to be essential. If everybody knows that preparations have been made, and what to do, it seems to me there is less likelihood of inhabitants of the East End believing they will be left in the lurch while the rich look after themselves.

KM People who are not necessarily pacifist are horrified at the idea that we may go into another war with the same kind of generals who were responsible for Passchendaele and other horrors in the last war. They say that they might be prepared to fight for democracy if they were democratically led; but that they are damned if they will be sacrificed again for the Camberley clique that was so horribly inefficient and wasteful in the last war. Do you think it is possible to democratise the army?

WC It is quite true, I know, that many people consider that the cadre of officers is selected from too narrow a class. I have always taken the view that merit should be rewarded by promotion in the army as in any other profession. I support this not only from the point of view of democratising the army, but mainly because I think it leads to efficiency such as no other system can achieve.

KM May I ask one more question of a more general character? Most of us feel that if there is a war it will be so destructive that the very substance of our civilisation, let alone our democracy, is likely to be destroyed. Clearly the great object is to prevent war. Is it possible in your view still to regard these military preparations, not as
the acceptance of inevitable war, but merely as a necessary complement of a policy which may keep the peace?

WC I fear that failure to rearm Britain is bound to lead to war. Had we strengthened our defences earlier, the arms race need never have arisen. We should have come to a settlement with Germany while she was still disarmed. I think it is still possible, with a strong Britain and France, to preserve the peace of Europe.

KM Is it not true historically that an armaments race leads to war?

WC To say that an arms race always leads to war seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. A government resolved to attain ends detrimental to its neighbours, which does not shrink from the possibility of war, makes preparations for war, its neighbours take defensive action, and you say an arms race is beginning. But this is the symptom of the intention of one government to challenge or destroy its neighbours, not the cause of the conflict. The pace is set by the potential aggressor, and, failing collective action by the rest of the world to resist him, the alternatives are an arms race or surrender. War is very terrible, but stirs a proud people. There have been periods in our history when we have given way for a long time, but a new and formidable mood arises . . .

KM A bellicose mood?

WC A mood of “Thus far, and no farther”. It is only by the spirit of resistance that man has learnt to stand upright, and in-stead of walking on all fours to assume an erect posture.

KM Do you think it possible to concentrate mainly on defence with the idea that we should be less afraid of attack and therefore able to stand up for ourselves without preparing to bomb other people?

WC I cannot subscribe to the idea that it might be possible to dig ourselves in and make no preparations for anything other than passive defence. It is the theory of the turtle, disproved at every Lord Mayor’s Banquet. If the enemy can attack as and when he pleases without fear of reprisals, we should become the whipping-boy of Europe. We need shelters and tunnels, but crouching in a tunnel is not a fighting posture. Quite apart from the fact that we could never defend our dependencies on such lines, we should be exposed to inevitable defeat. Every nation of the world would have an incentive to have a free cut at the melon. War is horrible, but slavery is worse, and you may be sure that the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude. 

29 January 1965: The Great Outsider

Unsigned editorial

The week Churchill died, the NS ran a front-page editorial in which it praised “the greatest man of action of his age”. Not everyone agreed. “I read your front-page article on Churchill with my now accustomed regret,” one reader wrote in a letter. “I have taken the New Statesman for some 35 years and I am still astonished that a team of intelligent people can be so out of touch with ordinary human beings . . . whenever you touch human grandeur, be it Churchill or de Gaulle, it crumbles into grit between your fingers.”

Winston Churchill’s formal education was a failure; he left school ignorant and unawakened. To his grief, his brilliant father largely ignored him and declined any course of instruction in politics. Thus, though born to a great historical tradition of public service, he was largely self-taught and self-formed, a process he accomplished as a lonely subaltern on the frontiers of empire. It is not surprising, therefore, that he never developed a coherent political philosophy, and in several respects his approach to politics was unsophisticated, even immature.

This led him into many errors and mis-judgments. Though a good House of Commons man, he could not adapt himself to the party system. His lighthearted change of party and his brash approach to the problem of coercing Ulster laid the foundations for the deep distrust in which he was held, through most of his life, by orthodox Tories. He allowed himself to be out-manoeuvred over Gallipoli, the one stroke of strategic genius which could have shortened the war; instead, the incident confirmed his reputation for folly. Free trade made him join the Liberals. But he despised their anaemic Nonconformity and they, in turn, feared his belligerent view of life. At the same time, his unthinking imperialism, his eager acceptance of the class-war (as during the General Strike), his taste for direct action and his failure to comprehend the basic aspirations of British socialism made him anathema to the Labour Party for many years. There were deeper shortcomings. Most of the mass-movements of his time left him unmoved and uncomprehending. He tried to stifle communism at birth and was puzzled by its resilience – until it presented itself to him in the person of Stalin, a conventional power-figure he could understand.

But his unawareness of system and cyclical change gave him great strength as an empiricist. In moments of crisis he was unburdened by preconceptions or rigid beliefs. This made him the greatest man of action of his age. He saw 1914 not as the end of an epoch, but as a moment when the Fleet ought to be ready and at sea. Unlike the appeasers, he regarded Hitler not as a complex phenomenon to be placed in an elaborate historical context, but simply as a menace to civilisation – and he reacted accordingly. He was the first to scrap the ideological barriers when the Nazis invaded Russia, the first in the West to restore them – at Fulton in 1946 – when Hitlerism had been destroyed. He offered union with France in 1940 as a straightforward alternative to imminent defeat; but turned his back on Europe in 1951, when the opportunity to create a rationalised structure presented itself. He was a great internationalist: but mainly in the interests of national self-survival. He was thus able to prolong Britain’s existence as a leading power by an entire generation – perhaps two – and to preserve the freedom of countless millions to propagate political and social ideas he detested.

Many more sober statesmen saw his immense appetite for unregarding action as dangerous. This was to misunderstand the man. Churchill was rash, but incapable of using power evilly. For a politician he had exceptional magnanimity, his flashes of anger yielding swiftly to the lure of comradeship. He loved battle but detested persecution. Underlying these characteristics was the one salient principle of his life: his passionate regard for British parliamentary democracy. This may seem paradoxical in a man who was an aristocrat by birth and an outsider by temperament. Churchill, indeed, was not a skilful electioneer and frequently found himself rejected. But this never dimmed his conviction that the British people, as a whole, formed a mature and wise corporation, who could be trusted to exercise their constitutional rights responsibly. He saw it as his duty and function to use his matchless courage, oratory and powers of leadership to extract from our people the best they had to give. By a grandiose accident of history, he was privileged to discharge that role in full measure.

29 January 1965: “What panache! What guts!”

By Hugh Dalton

A Labour colleague in Churchill’s wartime cabinet remembers how he fell under the prime minister’s spell.

It is finished. “Now,” as was said of Lincoln, “he belongs to the ages.” I offer here no profound appreciation nor compressed life story of Winston Churchill, but only some personal memories and judgements. I served with him in the House of Commons for close on 30 years; and in his War Coalition, as a minister of cabinet rank, for more than five years; for two years as Minister of Economic Warfare and “Special Operations” – “Minister of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, he used to call me – then for three years as President of the Board of Trade. But for more than 50 years he fascinated me by his personality and style.

At Cambridge, from 1906 to 1910, I was a Fabian socialist while he was a Liberal minister. Obviously he was much more interesting to us young men than most old cabinet ministers. Stories about him circulated among us. Some reached me through Rupert Brooke from Eddie Marsh, who
accompanied him, as private secretary, on an East African tour. A colonial governor spoke of the regrettable spread of venereal disease among the natives. “Ah,” said Winston, “Pox Britannica!” And late one night, on this same trip, reflecting on the wide disparities of fortune, not least between these Africans and the Europeans: “I don’t think much of God,” said Winston; “he hasn’t put enough in the pool.”

I first met him in October 1908 at dinner with the Webbs. He was President of the Board of Trade, and they had just persuaded him to set up labour exchanges. Now they wanted to sell him the staff to run them. Beveridge was there, of course, and some younger people. That night Winston talked much, diffusely and overpoweringly, and listened little. But he engaged Beveridge, as the Webbs had planned.

Churchill put himself wrong with the Labour Party on many issues and occasions: at Tonypandy in 1910 when he used troops against miners on strike; in his return to the gold standard in 1925, though [Philip] Snowden agreed with him on this; in the General Strike in 1926, when he gaily abandoned the Treasury in order to edit the British Gazette; in his persistent military intervention in Russia in 1919 and 1920 against what he called “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism”; in his rebellious resistance in the early Thirties to even the slow and cautious advances of a Tory cabinet towards Indian self-government. But, as the Thirties wore on, many of us, especially the British rearmers in the Labour Party, felt ourselves drawing nearer to him.

I was in touch with him and other Tory dissenters around the time of Munich. For a moment a big Tory breakaway from Chamberlain seemed possible. This dream soon faded then. In May 1940 it came true.

From 1940 to 1945 we Labour ministers worked with him, on the whole, well, but watchfully. He had a double nature. Bevin once said to me: “One day he’s a great national leader; next day he’s just a Tory political crook.” I was never intimate with him. But he gave me good support while I was one of his ministers, and we had no serious quarrel. Often, in cabinet conflicts, he took my side, sometimes most decisively. But I was sometimes discontented because I could not gain his full interest in projects which I thought important.

In May 1940, when I first joined his government, I fell completely under his spell. What panache! What guts! In those tense days I would have followed him anywhere. We had no other leader, no other saviour. “I felt,” he said when he became Prime Minister, “as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

On the political side of the war Churchill had prejudices, not always helpful. Thus he was too fond of kings, in Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia; just as, some think, he stuck too long to our own Edward VIII and leaned too far, as a historian, towards Charles and away from Cromwell. In home politics in 1943-5 he aimed at preventing disruptive disputes within his government. On 28 May 1945, after the Coalition government had broken up, he was At Home at No 10 Downing Street to those who had served in it. Standing behind the familiar green baize cabinet table, now draped as a buffet, he addressed us with tears streaming down his cheeks. He said that we had all come together and had stayed together as a united band of friends in a very trying time. History would recognise this. “The light of history will shine on all your helmets.”

In his last years he frequented the House of Commons, but more and more as a ghost. He walked along the corridors with a severe arthritic limp. He had determined never to try to speak in the House again. He seldom smiled. He missed his dead or stricken friends, Cherwell or Eden. He now wished to die. A conservative who had been a close cabinet colleague told me that he had tried in vain, dining alone with him in recent years, to arouse his interest or to give him pleasure. But “I am hoping,” he had said, “that I shall be sent for soon.”

This article appears in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth